Round Two in West Texas Special

Conaway, Neugebauer Share Positions but Differ on Runoff Strategy

Posted May 7, 2003 at 6:21pm

After beating out 15 other candidates in the Texas 19th district special House election Saturday, former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer (R) and Midland accountant Mike Conaway (R) are taking very different approaches to their month-long runoff campaign.

Neugebauer plans to stick to the primary strategy that boosted him to the top of the candidate pile.

“We are going to run a districtwide campaign,” said Neugebauer consultant Todd Olsen, who noted that his candidate was the only one in the field to win counties in both the northern and southern ends of the massive district. Not content to rest on his laurels, however, Neugebauer launched the first ad of the runoff Wednesday.

Ted Delisi, a Conaway adviser, took a different view of the election. He argued that “runoffs are very different animals” and, as a result, little can be gleaned from the primary results.

“We did what we had to do to get into a runoff,” he said. “Now we are going to do what we have to do to win.”

The runoff date cannot be formally set until Saturday’s results are officially certified, but it is almost certain to be held on June 7.

Neugebauer led the crowded field running to replace Rep. Larry Combest (R), who is retiring on May 31, with 22 percent, far below the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Conaway secured the second runoff spot by taking 21 percent — less than 800 votes separated the two.

State Rep. Carl Isett (R), widely perceived as the frontrunner going into the election, placed third with 19 percent. Former Lubbock Mayor — and onetime Democrat — David Langston (R) took fourth place with 14 percent. No other candidate received more than 4 percent.

Neither Isett nor Langston has endorsed a candidate yet in the runoff, but both campaigns are working to secure their support.

“We want the endorsements of the other candidates that ran,” said Olsen. “They are clearly leaders across the district.”

A potentially crucial endorsement could also come from Combest, who has represented West Texas since 1984.

Combest has maintained a low profile since announcing his resignation from Congress last Nov. 12, one week removed from the 2002 election. He and Neugebauer do have a close relationship, however, and Olsen did not rule out the possibility of a runoff endorsement.

“Having Larry Combest’s support would be phenomenal,” said Olsen. “He is loved across the district.”

Dirk Philpot, a spokesman for Combest, said he hadn’t “heard anything from the Congressman to indicate he will” endorse.

The endorsement game aside, both camps were busy in the wake of the primary, crunching numbers and spinning them to their candidate’s advantage.

Neugebauer won 11 of the 19 counties in the 19th — counties that cast 63 percent of the total primary vote, according to a memo distributed by Neugebauer’s pollster Glen Bolger.

Neugebauer’s appeal in smaller and more rural counties was “evidence that we ran a districtwide campaign,” said Olsen. “The momentum is on Randy’s side, and you can’t look at the numbers and see anything else.”

Delisi begged to differ with Olsen, his former partner in an Austin, Texas-based consulting firm, which the two bought from Bush White House political adviser Karl Rove in 1999.

“The county [argument] is misleading,” Delisi said. “All counties are important in this race, but 70 percent of the population is concentrated in three counties.”

Conaway easily carried Ector and Midland counties, the two populous areas in the southern end of the district known collectively as the Permian Basin. In Lubbock County, the heaviest voting county in the primary, Neugebauer triumphed by 500 votes over Isett. Conaway received 1,783 votes there.

Lubbock cast more than 26,000 votes, roughly 45 percent of the districtwide total; it also produced three of the four top finishers in Neugebauer, Langston and Isett.

The statistics clearly establish Lubbock as a key battlefield as Neugebauer tries to consolidate his geographic base, while Conaway seeks to make inroads by appealing to those who voted for other Lubbock candidates.

Pointing out that Lubbock was by far the most “fractured” county in the primary, Delisi said that “to assume those votes are picked up by the largest votegetter is not a given.”

Neugebauer focused his television advertising in the northern end of the district, according to Delisi, and ran considerably more ads there than Conaway did in the primary.

“The TV spending war is going to be very competitive” in the runoff, Delisi predicted.

Neugebauer struck first, however, in the runoff ad war with a spot featuring testimonials to Neugebauer that mimics an ad run early on in the primary campaign.

The ad, produced by Scott Howell, features people from all over the district praising Neugebauer as a “man of deep faith” and a “true leader for West Texas.”

Neugebauer’s television campaign has been funded by a financial effort that consistently put him at the front of the primary field.

He brought in more than $600,000 by April 13 with $150,000 coming from his own pocket. Conaway raised $400,000 in that time with a $25,000 personal donation.

Bolger said that the fact that three of the four top votegetters came out of Lubbock bodes well for Neugebauer.

“While there is no guarantee that Carl Isett and David Langston voters will support Neugebauer, Randy clearly begins the runoff with a better opportunity to attract these voters,” Bolger wrote.

Neugebauer is not planning to concede the southern end of the district, however.

“In Ector County we think we have enormous support and ability to attract new support,” Olsen said.

The primary results did not bear that support out, though, as Neugebauer placed a distant third in Ector and fifth in Midland.